When is the best time of year to take an avalanche course?
Participants digging a snow pit during and AIARE 1 Avalanche Course in the Lake Tahoe Backcountry. Photo: Zeb Blais.
From backcountry skiers looking to take their first avalanche course to experienced riders continuing their avalanche education with an AIARE 2, everyone wants to know:
“when’s the best time of year to take an avalanche course?”
Like snowflakes, no two avalanche courses are exactly the same. No matter when you take an avalanche course, there will be strengths and weaknesses to each course. Some courses will have huge storms and high avalanche danger. Others will have clear weather with a stable snowpack.
There are a huge number of factors that affect the snowpack and snow conditions. Generalizations can be made about what conditions will be like during certain times of the year, but ultimately, the weather directly preceding the program and season's snowpack up to that point will combine to form a completely unique snowpack structure.
It is impossible to predict what the conditions will be like during your avalanche course when you book your course months ahead of time. The good news is that no matter what the conditions are like, there will be plenty to learn. Whether you have a thick snowpack and low avalanche danger or a thin one with lots of complex layers, the lessons you learn will add to your experience of how snow changes with time and weather. Every snowpack has a story to tell and is helpful to understand as part of your progression in understanding avalanches.
Avalanches are a complex phenomenon. It would be impossible to see all 9 of the avalanche problems on a single avalanche course, and most well-planned avalanche courses are designed with that in mind. They should provide baseline knowledge for all of the problems that you could encounter in the field, not just the ones that you actually experience during your course. You should come away from any good avalanche course with the fundamental skills to help you make sound decisions in a variety of terrain, weather and snowpacks.
Differences between Courses: During High Avy Danger and During Low Avy Danger
In an AIARE avalanche course, you'll learn about the 9 avalanche types (problems), but chances are that you will experience only a few during your course. If you do experience a large number of problems at once, chances are that you're dealing with a complicated snowpack with an elevated avalanche hazard, like the one we dealt with in late January of 2021 in the Tahoe backcountry. Storms and wind piled snow on top of a fragile snowpack with persistent weak layers, rocketing the avalanche hazard up and limiting safe backcountry travel to very low angle terrain with no exposure to slopes above. These elevated hazards make it difficult to travel far into avalanche terrain, so limit what you'll experience firsthand in terms of terrain. On the other hand, you get to see what a very unstable snowpack looks like - the layers, snowpack test results, whumphing and cracking!
On the flip side of that coin, many courses will experience lower avalanche hazard. Participants on courses with lower hazard won't get the experience of seeing an intense storm and the resulting snowpack instabilities, but they will have the advantage of being able to travel deeper into legitimate avalanche terrain. With lower avalanche danger, you'll be able to travel further in the terrain, to see more avalanche-prone features and ride more lines.
Terrain is ultimately what we control to manage the risks of avalanche terrain, so it cannot be overstated how important this aspect is to avalanche education. Getting to see and travel through more terrain with an experienced instructor is really helpful!
So, when should I take my avalanche course already?!
No matter what the conditions are like during your program, there will be thousands of lessons to learn. Remember, these are simply generalizations and weather patterns leading up to the course and during the course can flip these guidelines upside down!
Skiing the Lake Tahoe backcountry in epic mid-winter conditions. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The benefits of taking a course early in the season can outweigh the disadvantages. One of the biggest advantages to taking an avalanche course early in the season is that once you’ve taken the course, you have the rest of the season to put the skills and knowledge you learned to use. Like anything, understanding and managing avalanche hazard takes continual effort. Avalanche education is a lifelong journey that you build on with every tour you take!
Most frequently, prospective students are concerned about snow coverage early in the season. The thought seems to be If there isn’t much snow, there won’t be much to learn. Sometimes travel can be limited, but often early season courses offer up great coverage with early season storms.
AIARE students dig in a shallow, highly variable early season snowpack during an AIARE 1 Avalanche course in Truckee, California.
The thin, early season snowpacks that occur in maritime snow climates (found in California & Washington) are often more complex and interesting due to the variety of snow grain types and the distinct layers that form. Often the snow snowpack during this time of year is thin with cold snow and cold ambient air temperatures. This tends to produce faceting and more variable layering than the thicker, more uniform snowpack that typifies a Tahoe snowpack later in the season.
Ski conditions don't have to be awesome to learn a lot in an avalanche course. In fact, when ski conditions are awesome, you should be out skiing the snow instead of digging in it! You’re going to learn a ton in your avalanche course as long as there is enough snow to:
- move through the terrain
- dig a pit to assess layers
- perform snowpack tests
- practice avalanche rescue
Hopefully, your avalanche course providers will only run avalanche courses if they can meet the learning objectives for the course. You have to be able to learn the fundamentals of decision making in avalanche terrain on your avalanche course!Early Season Pros
- Learn Early and use the knowledge and skills for the rest of the Season
- See more complex snowpack structures in maritime snowpacks (California, Oregon, Washington)
- Take the course before the riding is REALLY good
Early Season Cons
- Coverage can sometimes limit terrain (although, avalanche courses often don't cover massive amounts of mileage during courses)
This is what we all want to be doing mid season when the snow is deep and cold!
Mid-Season conditions will depend on snowfall and weather from the early season to some extent, but you can count on January and February having better coverage. Thicker, more consistent snowpack means that more terrain is accessible, but also means that layers in the snowpack tend to become more uniform, especially in the Maritime snow climates of California, Oregon and Washington.
Uniform layering means a strong and stable snowpack, but when you're trying to learn about unstable snow, it can also mean that problem layers are harder to find. This is great for skiing fun lines, but not great for understanding avalanche problems. As the season progresses in Maritime and Transitional snowpacks (from the west coast to the Tetons and Wasatch), there are often less persistent layers (which are created by cold temps and thin snowpacks) and avalanche problems are typically “direct-action” avalanches from storms and loose wet problems from warming and solar radiation.
More coverage can mean more terrain options. Travelling through avalanche terrain with an experienced instructor is incredibly valuable to help train your "avalanche eyeballs." Once you've developed this skill, you'll recognize features in the terrain that increase the likelihood of an avalanche. These are features like convex rolls, terrain traps and unsupported slopes. You'll see this terrain in any AIARE 1 or AIARE 2 course, but options for specific lines and zones are expanded with better coverage.
- Better coverage can offer greater opportunities for travel in the terrain.
- Thicker snowpack may cause the snowpack to become more uniform in Martime and Transitional snowpacks, making if more difficult to see problem layers that can increase avalanche hazard
- You're taking the course during some of the best conditions of the season instead of shredding the best conditions of the season
Enjoying the spoils of a solid avalanche education in the Tahoe backcountry. Photo: Zeb Blais.
As winter fades into spring, the snowpack shifts and so do avalanche types. With warmer temperatures, more intense sun and longer days, the snowpack tends to heal and become more homogenous, with less distinct layers, just like the change from early season to mid-season. This makes for great "spring-time" riding conditions and usually the snowpack enters a diurnal cycle.
The Diurnal cycle is the daily cycle that the snowpack undergoes, from frozen solid to warm and slushy. As temperatures and solar radiation ramp up, so does the avalanche hazard.
Late season courses are best positioned to move far and wide in the terrain, based on easy gliding conditions and the best coverage of the season. With easier trail-breaking and thick snowpack, courses can often cover more ground than they might other times of year.
Late season courses also help participants to time corn skiing conditions for spring skiing and ski mountaineering objectives. figure out how to plan for the best ski quality based on weather. Timing corn skiing can be the difference between skiing a sheet of hard ice, being exposed to dangerous loose wet avalanches or having the perfect day of ripping God's groomers - corn snow!
- Best coverage of the season.
- Exposure to diurnal /spring cycling and understanding how the snow changes on a daily basis
- Most uniform snowpack of the season.
- Late in the year provides less opportunity to practice the skills before the season ends
The biggest thing to remember is that no matter when you take your avalanche course, you'll be gaining experience evaluating terrain and snowpack with an experienced instructor. Each program will have its unique strengths and weaknesses, and we encourage everyone who regularly travels in avalanche terrain to seek out instruction and mentorship in a range snowpacks, conditions and terrain.
Avalanches are a complex phenomenon and gaining a good understanding of the factors that increase avalanche hazard and risk for your group is a lifelong process. The more experience you can get with different avalanche problems, weather systems, terrain, snowpack and people, the more you'll be able to manage the risks while travelling in avalanche terrain. There are limitless combinations of snowpack layers and weather, which makes it really difficult to predict avalanches. Having a broad depth of experience to guide your decision making is critical, so keep looking for ways to expand your experience!
If you've still got questions on when the best time to take an avalanche course is, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd be happy to talk avalanches and help you pick when you should take an avalanche course!